PITTSBURGH – A member of Pennsylvania’s highest court was convicted Thursday of corrupting the election process in her campaigns to win a seat on the bench, triggering renewed calls to change the system of electing state judges.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin was just the second known Supreme Court justice to be convicted in nearly three centuries, and her conviction may soon set in motion political campaigns by would-be justices vying to replace her.
Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, were convicted of corruption for allegedly misusing state-paid staffers to do campaign work.
Pennsylvania Bar Association president Thomas Wilkinson said the “verdict represents a sad chapter in the history of Pennsylvania’s justice system” and bolsters the association’s position that justices should be appointed, not elected.
The sisters were each convicted of six counts for the work done on Melvin’s 2003 and 2009 Supreme Court campaigns. Jurors were unable to decide one count of official oppression against Melvin, 56, who was accused of firing her Superior Court law clerk-turned-key witness, Lisa Sasinoski, after she objected to doing political work in 2003.
The sisters were found guilty of several counts of theft of services, as well as criminal conspiracy, and one count each of misappropriation of state property.
Orie, 58, was also convicted of evidence tampering for ordering a Superior Court staffer to delete political files from court computers once the Allegheny County district attorney began investigating in late 2009.
Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus did not schedule a sentencing date. The felony theft of services charges are the most serious, carrying up to seven years in prison each, though sentencing guidelines – which will take into account the defendants’ clean records – are likely to recommend less time.
A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, was charged as part of the conspiracy but she wasn’t on trial. She resigned from office last year and is serving 2½ to 10 years in prison for illegally using her staff to work on her own campaigns, though she was acquitted of having her staff campaign for Melvin, too.
One of Melvin’s conspiracy convictions stemmed from cover-up activity: a three-way call between herself, Jane Orie, and Orie’s former chief of staff Jamie Pavlot. During the call, Melvin and Jane Orie allegedly told Pavlot to remove any political documents from a file Pavlot took home after they learned of the investigation.
Melvin and her lawyers left the courtroom without commenting after sheriff’s deputies blocked off a hallway to keep reporters away.
Orie’s attorney, James DePasquale, said of the verdict, “I didn’t like it, I’ll tell you that.” He planned to appeal the verdict and ask for probation, he said.
Melvin and Orie, who followed her sister as a Supreme Court aide, remain suspended without pay and the state’s Judicial Conduct Board has disciplinary charges pending against Melvin.
Melvin’s suspension in May left the high court with three Republican and three Democratic justices. It is not clear how soon that will change.
Art Heinz, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the conviction will not immediately change Melvin’s status, though the Court of Judicial Discipline has the authority to remove her from office if the Judicial Conduct Board charges are proven. Heinz wasn’t sure if the Supreme Court, itself, could remove Melvin from office.
Chief Justice Ronald Castille did not comment.
Typically, the governor picks a nominee to fill an absence on the state Supreme Court. The nominee must get the state Senate’s confirmation to take the job until voters elect a new justice to a 10-year term in the next election in an odd-numbered year, Heinz said.
The staunchly Republican, conservative Catholic sisters from Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs have argued the charges were overblown or outright lies whipped up by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., a Democrat, allegedly because the Ories have opposed the expansion of legalized gambling, an industry in which Zappala’s relatives had an interest.
Zappala said the investigation began simply because an intern for then-Sen. Orie complained in October 2009 about political campaign work the legislative staff was being made to do for Melvin, just days before she won a seat on the state’s highest court.
Jury foreman Matt Mabon said the jurors largely put aside Jane Orie’s alleged role, and decided the counts against Janine Orie first because “all the evidence pointed to Janine Orie. There was a lot more emails of Janine Orie directing people what to do.”
The evidence that Melvin used her Superior Court staff politically, though strong, was more circumstantial, he said.
The jury hung on the Sasinoski firing charge because the defense, through state personnel records, muddied the waters as to whether the law clerk was actually fired or merely resigned to take a job with Justice Max Baer after he defeated Melvin in the 2003 election.